First Drive: 2020 Lincoln Aviator flies into luxury SUV dogfight

Three-row midsize Aviator set to challenge prime luxury SUV segment leaders

Published: October 11, 2019, 5:30 AM
Updated: November 23, 2021, 4:05 PM

2020 Lincoln Aviator

QUEBEC CITY – Lincoln’s SUV lineup has been, for too long, basically gussied-up clones of its Ford cousins. Now, however, the luxury brand is making definitive moves to stand apart from its corporate relatives – and the new 2020 Lincoln Aviator is a prime example of this change in direction. Lincoln is aiming to stand alone and go head to head with the best in the premium SUV marketplace and has designed the Aviator to be a worthy challenger in the midsize segment.

Now it’s not uncommon for we auto scribes to fawn over nice new cars, especially ones as well-appointed as this Aviator, but perhaps the best assessment of this new vehicle’s potential in the upscale market came unsolicited from a limo driver who was shuttling us to a dinner during the Aviator’s Canadian media launch. This retired long-haul trucker, who now delivers Quebec-built Prevost buses to US buyers in addition to his limo gig, was driving an Aviator for the first time.

“It’s beautiful, the seats are so comfortable, and it has lots of power,” he said. “I could see myself heading off in this (car) to Florida and loving every moment of the drive.”   

That candid response pretty much wraps up the Aviator – and it was music to the ears of Lincoln Product Marketing Manager Jim Rideout. He says Lincoln management recognized six years ago that consumer preferences were starting to shift toward SUVs, so they set out to meet this trend and the result is the Aviator, the first 3-row midsize SUV in Lincoln’s portfolio.

Riding the SUV wave

“We looked at the other brands in the segment as a benchmark and worked from there,” Rideout explained. The designers and engineers took their cues from such competitive models as the Audi Q7, Cadillac XT6, Volvo XC90, BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz GLE, creating a vehicle that’s beautifully designed inside and out, with a powertrain, dynamics and ride quality that rivals anything in the category. 

Although it shares its basic platform with the midsize Ford Explorer, there’s little else that’s common between the two SUVs. For example, the standard coil-spring suspension system with electronic dampers features five drive-mode settings: normal, excite (sport), conserve, slippery and deep conditions. Dialing up your preference can be done on the go by simply rotating the console-mounted knob, which in turn tweaks the suspension and throttle body response to the appropriate level.

If you’re looking for more ride comfort and sharpened handling, a new advanced adaptive suspension system is available. It uses a dozen sensors to monitor vehicle dynamics, reading the road 500 times a second, then prompting setting adjustments up to 100 times per second. An available road preview feature can be added to the adaptive package. It uses a camera to scan the road up to 15 metres ahead, looking for potholes, frost heaves and other height deviations from 50 to 200 millimetres, then adjusts the suspension to lessen any impact. It actually identifies which wheel will be impacted and raises it slightly to minimize the hit.

A third suspension upgrade, the Air Glide system, uses air springs rather than coils, allowing several preset ride heights, including a “kneeling” feature that lowers the vehicle as you approach it, making entry less challenging. It will also lower the ride height 1.5 mm at speeds above 100 km/h for better aerodynamics, improving fuel efficiency. In the “deep” setting, the Air Glide system will also raise the vehicle 30 mm for better ground clearance.

After spending two days behind the wheel, the Aviator’s ride quality didn’t disappoint – it was excellent. Thanks to the Air Glide system, it smoothed out rough secondary roads, took the jarring impact out of potholes and made highway cruising a serene experience. Handling was good as well, with little body lean, even when pushed to its cornering limits.  

Power player

Power wasn’t lacking, either. There’s only one powertrain offered at the moment – a 3.0-litre V-6 with twin turbochargers, coupled to a smooth shifting 10-speed automatic transmission. The engine cranks out 400 horsepower and 415 lb-ft of torque – output I found to be more than adequate to get this 7-seat SUV moving with authority. It launched rapidly and had no trouble responding with speed to merge or pass on the highway. It’s also capable of towing up to 3,039 kg (6,700 lbs.).

Soon, a second powertrain package will be available – a gas/electric plug-in hybrid. Production has just started on this package, which sandwiches a 75-kilowatt electric motor between the 3.0L turbo V-6 engine and the 10-speed transmission. The system includes a compact 13.6-kWh lithium-ion battery positioned under the second-row seats, so it doesn’t compromise seating or cargo space. Anticipated power numbers for this PHEV package are stout – 494 horsepower and 630 lb-ft of torque. Because of the added weight of the hybrid system components, however, the towing capacity is less than the conventional powertrain – 2,540 kg.

While the Explorer-based platform features rear-wheel-drive architecture, the Aviator will be offered in Canada only with all-wheel drive.

Looks that kill; features to thrill

The exterior design, with its aggressively styled, high, wide front end and tapering silhouette toward the rear of the vehicle, has hints of an aerofoil shape, hence the Aviator nameplate. The available 22-inch alloy wheels have a unique turbine look, again an acknowledgement to the aeronautical influence.

Inside, the cabin is pure luxury, with premium quality materials, excellent fit and finish. The instrument panel, which flows beautifully from door to door, is uncluttered, with controls packaged in a cluster below the full-colour infotainment screen. The available 30-way power-adjustable Perfect Position seats have controls conveniently mounted on the upper door panel, similar to the Mercedes approach – and one that’s so much more convenient (and less distracting) than groping blindly between the lower door and seat base to make an adjustment. The seat adjustment panel also includes a button that opens a display on the screen for selecting the type and intensity of the massage system. I was sold on this feature minutes after activating it. Dial in a bit of heat from the bun warmer and who needs a spa day? Just take the Aviator for a long drive.

To complete the premium ambience, there’s an available Revel Ultima 3D audio system with 28 speakers positioned throughout the cabin, including the headliner. A unique touch has been implemented in the alert system. Instead of the sometimes annoying and/or jarring beeps, dings and buzzes typically used to warn the driver, the Aviator uses 25 different musical alerts recorded by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to let you something is amiss, from the fuel door left open after the last fill-up to an occupant whose seatbelt is unattached.   

The second-row 30/40/30-split bench slides fore and aft to increase legroom while providing easier access to the third-row bench. The second-row seating, with seatbacks that recline a bit or fold forward for a flat cargo area, are comfortable and provide decent legroom when positioned fully back on the seat rails. The third row is somewhat less accommodating for adults – okay for a short drive, but best suited for the kids on any lengthy trip. Interestingly, there is still decent cargo space behind the third-row seatbacks when they’re in the upright position. In fact, Lincoln says the cargo volume there is best in class. Fold both rows flat and there’s enough space for a dance party.

State-of-tech safety features

The Aviator is loaded with the latest safety, driver assist and connectivity technologies. Lincoln’s Co-Pilot360, with pre-Collision Assist with automatic emergency braking, blind spot detection with cross traffic alert, a lane-keeping system, rear backup camera and auto high-beam headlamps, are all standard.

You can opt to upgrade to Lincoln Co-Pilot360 Plus, which adds adaptive cruise control with traffic jam assist. It scans speed limit signs along the roadway and adjusts the vehicle’s speed based on the information obtained from the sign. There’s also a “tolerance” feature that allows the driver to build in a tolerable speed in excess of the posted limit. Our experience using the system found it didn’t always catch temporary speed limits, such as in construction zones, and the tolerance level might get one in trouble – 10 km/h over the limit on the highway may be more forgivable than 10k over zipping through a small town. In other words, the driver still needs to be aware and alert.

Other technologies included in the 360Plus package include evasive steering assist, reverse brake assist and active park assist plus, which manoeuvres the vehicle in and out of parallel and perpendicular parking spaces at the touch of a button. The use of adaptive pixel LED headlamps, which allow the reflectors to move, changing the pattern of the beams, has made possible the addition of two new lighting technologies: adaptive dynamic bending lighting, which reads the road ahead through a front camera and bends the headlamp beam when it senses a corner, and speed-dependent lighting, which adjusts the intensity of the beam based on the speed of the vehicle – at faster speeds, light is directed to the road, while at slower speeds, the headlamps are adjusted to illuminate more areas around the vehicle.

Lincoln is introducing its Phone As A Key technology as an available feature in the Aviator. It enables owners to use their compatible smartphone as a key to access the vehicle. They can lock and unlock the vehicle, open the liftgate and start and drive the vehicle – all without a traditional key. The system will also recall individual preferences for adjusting seat, side mirrors and steering column positions, as well as comfort and entertainment settings. Up to four “keys” are provided with each vehicle, in addition to the standard smart key fobs. If the phone battery dies, a passcode can be entered on the exterior keypad to gain entry, then a backup code can be entered on the centre touch screen to start and drive the vehicle. And if your phone is lost or stolen, the system can be easily deleted.

Other convenience features offered in the Aviator include an available wireless charging pad, located in the centre armrest, for compatible phones, while a handy media bin is available for the front-row passenger. There are multiple power outlets throughout the cabin as well as a standard Wi-Fi hotspot.

As the limo driver said, with all the Aviator’s comfort, convenience and luxury features, a long-haul trip to Florida would be a breeze.

Keeping costs reasonable

Fuel consumption numbers for the 3.0-litre gas Aviator AWD are 13.7 litres/100 km in city driving and 9.7 on the highway. Expect ratings for the hybrid powertrain to be announced closer to its release date, which is scheduled to occur in a few months.

Pricing for the base Aviator Reserve AWD starts at $69,000 plus the destination and delivery fee of $2,100, although the Canadian Lincoln website shows a starting price of $75,000. Rideout explained that the initial production run that started a few weeks ago at the Chicago assembly plant is focussing on the base 200A trim, but the upgraded 201A model, which goes into production in January, will start at the posted price. From there, the price walk ramps up quickly – the fully-loaded model I drove at this event topped out at $86,700, including $9,000 for the Elements Package Plus and Lincoln Co-Pilot 360 Plus, $2,000 for the Convenience Pack and $3,500 for the Dynamic Handling Package. The Pristine White Metallic Tri-Coat finish added another $850 to the bottom line. Pricing for the plug-in hybrid Aviator Grand Touring model will start at $81,000.

The 2020 Aviator is arriving now in dealers’ showrooms.